Nuclear-armed North Korea said Wednesday that the weapon it tested a day earlier was a new “hypersonic missile” that can better evade defenses compared to ballistic missiles and be quickly deployed in the event of conflict.
The development of the new weapons system, which the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency called a Hwasong-8, had been “a top priority” of the regime and was an achievement “of great strategic significance” — a term often used to denote nuclear capabilities.
Hypersonic missiles are far faster and more maneuverable than ballistic ones, making them potentially difficult targets for missile defenses. The North has in recent years developed a spate of missiles better equipped at evading enemies’ defenses.
But the South Korean military said Wednesday that the new missile is in an early stage of development and that it will take “a considerable period of time” before it could be deployed. It also played down concerns over the missile’s capabilities, saying that U.S. and South Korean assets are able to detect and intercept such missiles.
North Korea is banned from testing ballistic missiles under United Nations Security Council resolutions.
The new weapon was still expected to generate concern in Tokyo, potentially prompting Japan to review missile defense policies, observers said.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that the “likely targets” of the weapon would be U.S. bases in the region, including those in Japan.
Japan’s top government spokesman said Wednesday that Tokyo was aware of the claim, but was continuing to collect and analyze information with the U.S. and others.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular news conference that Japan was currently working to “improve its abilities to detect, track, and intercept all threats from the air.”
“We are planning to continue to strengthen the comprehensive missile air defense capabilities that we operate in Japan,” he added.
The North said that Tuesday’s launch had “confirmed the navigational control and stability of the missile,” as well as its “guiding maneuverability and the gliding flight characteristics of the detached hypersonic gliding warhead.”
“The test results proved that all the technical specifications met the design requirements,” it added.
A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched aboard a missile before it separates and approaches a target. HGVs can change trajectory during flight, making it difficult to intercept.
The North also said the missile had employed a “fuel ampoule” for the first time, suggesting the weapons could be fueled in factories and then sent to units in canisters. Doing so would allow a higher-degree of stealth for the weapons in the event of a conflict, eliminating the time-consuming need to fuel missiles at launch sites and potentially preventing the weapons from being spotted and targeted by spy satellites.
KCNA said that top military official and politburo presidium member Pak Jong Chon, who oversaw the launch, “noted the military significance of turning all missile fuel systems into ampoules.”
“If the DPRK fuels the missiles in the factory, military units don’t have to spend time doing it in the field when the @usairforce is doing its level best to kill them,” Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wrote on Twitter. “The canister also provides temperature control for the oxidizer. Big step for (North Korea).”
Details — including the estimated distance and height that the missile had traveled — have not been publicly released, but South Korean media, quoting military sources there, said the missile had “different flight features” than previously seen and was believed to have traveled 200 kilometers and hit a maximum altitude of around 30 km.
The latest weapons development was not unforeseen.
At a rare ruling party congress in January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un revealed that the country was working “to develop and introduce hypersonic gliding flight warheads in a short period” and that it had “finished research into developing warheads of different combat missions including the hypersonic gliding flight warheads for new-type ballistic rockets and was making preparations for their test manufacture.”
“Because of their speed and varied trajectories, hypersonic missiles are hard to detect, track and defend against,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “Advancements in fueling are intended to allow Pyongyang to fire the missiles quickly, making them more difficult for other countries to pre-emptively target and destroy before launch.”
Easley said that while it was “unlikely” that North Korea had reliably developed all the technologies its propaganda claimed, even an early model of the weapon could prove fearsome.
“If Pyongyang manages to fit a nuclear warhead on even a rudimentary hypersonic, it would be a dangerous weapon because it wouldn’t have to be extremely accurate to threaten the nearby metropolis of Seoul.”
On Tuesday, Japan characterized the launch as “threatening the peace and safety of our country and the entire region” and a “serious problem for the international community,” while the U.S. condemned the test but said it remains “committed” to engaging in dialogue with the North.
The launch was the North’s third weapons test in just over two weeks and came as its U.N. envoy delivered a scathing speech before the General Assembly lambasting the U.S. over “double standards.”
North Korean Ambassador Kim Song told the General Assembly that his country had a “right” to develop weapons for self-defense in the face of what Pyongyang calls the United States’ “hostile policy.”
“Nobody can deny our righteous right to self-defense” to test and develop weapons, he said in New York.
He also threw cold water on the prospect of a quick return to denuclearization talks with the United States.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been stalled since 2019, largely over disagreements on the easing of crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions that have suffocated the North Korean economy.
“If the U.S. shows its bold decision to give up its hostile policy, we are also prepared to respond willingly at any time,” the North’s U.N. envoy said. “But it is our judgment that there is no prospect, at the present stage, for the U.S. to really withdraw its hostile policy.”
The ambassador pointed to joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which Pyongyang views as a rehearsal for invasion, and the dispatch of “strategic weapons … in and around the Korean Peninsula,” demanding that the exercises be scrapped and the weapons removed.
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